Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Christmas Manifesto

It's that special time of year when we again feel the heat (but alas, not the light) of the "War on Christmas." Far be it from me to jump into the middle of that grudge match. But, I do want to talk about the larger issue the controversy raises. With the rising concern about income inequality, we often hear of "two Americas." And while this phrase is normally used to describe the separation between rich and poor, it can also be used to express the growing gulf between the religious and the non-religious in our society. Since the 1960's the non-religious minority has become more aggressive in asserting its "right" to not be exposed to the symbols, prayers, and scriptures of the majority religion in America: Christianity.

In my book, I discuss the influence of this growing minority. Beginning in the 1960's, they took legal action, demanding the right to not be exposed to religious messages. These cases went all the way to the Supreme Court, and were decided in their favor. The immediate result was the prohibition of prayer and Bible reading in American public schools. Further cases have resulted in the elimination of any religious messages or displays on public property. And the present standard that is considered constitutional precedent is what is called, "the Lemmon Test," based on the Supreme Court decision to order the removal of a public display of the Ten Commandments at a county courthouse. As I described the thinking behind this decision in my book, "The judicial standard for American courts is no longer the establishment of a state religion. It has now become a vague accusation of encouragement or endorsement of religion. The state, according to this new definition must be completely secular-that is, there cannot be a religious bone in the body politic of society. We must be clear: this is not what our constitution says. We have put words in its mouth, or, worse yet, changed its wording altogether. Establishment and encouragement are two very different things. Establishment is the creation of a state-supported institution: encouragement is simply approving of a practice, idea, or activity" (Shetler, 128).

If we examine the writings of many of the founders of our nation, they were profoundly on the side of the encouragement of religion. One of the most famous examples is the statement made by John Adams in 1798, "We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." In all honesty, these words describe perfectly the present condition of our society, and clarify what is actually at stake in the controversy.

There is another, distinctly American aspect to this approach to the influence of religion on society. Patrick Henry gave a speech in 1765 in which he said, "This nation was founded, not by religionists but by Christians; not on religion but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this reason, peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here." We might add, that the freedom of worship also implies the freedom to not worship, and to hold a non-religious view of the world. We are a nation built on the principle of freedom of conscience, and we must continue to honor that ideal. However, we cannot, for the sake of our children and grandchildren, allow a non-religious minority to impose its view upon a nation whose freedoms and values have been shaped by the influence of very religious worldview they oppose. Note, that this is not a call to impose religion on the non-religious, nor to dis-respect their freedom to believe and express those beliefs in the marketplace of ideas. It is rather a call to recognize what is at stake in this controversy, and to see that very values and freedoms we cherish are at risk in allowing a strict secularism to be imposed on American society.

In future posts, I intend to examine this cultural shift more closely in the hope that by understanding how we got into this mess, we can see a pathway out. America has been a unique experiment in human freedom and prosperity. It is built upon an ideal, and like all societies, has often not lived up to that ideal. But in its more than two hundred years of history, it has been more effective at delivering the goods of individual freedom and prosperity than any nation in history. We would be wise, therefore, to carefully consider the consequences before making wholesale changes to the fundamental assumptions upon which this nation was built, and to allow religion and specifically Christianity a place of continuing influence upon our society.

 Merry Christmas to all, and may God bless this coming New Year.